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New guidance on university governance: to strengthen and to protect

  • 16 September 2020
  • By John Rushworth

This blog was kindly contributed by John Rushforth, the executive secretary at the Committee of University Chairs.  

Today sees the publication of the new the Higher Education Code of Governance, published by the Committee for University Chairs.

It comes at a time of unprecedented challenge for the higher education sector – under enormous financial pressures, facing uncertainty about the operation of socially distanced campuses, amidst a climate emergency and dealing with frequent challenges from a volatile government on standards, quality and value for money.

The sector has its own very strong view on institutional governance – summarised briefly it is UK higher education has good governance – delivered by committed, experienced and highly capable governors which makes a major contribution to the outstanding performance of the sector.

So why publish new guidance and what is different about it.

There are several reasons, most notably:

  • To protect the reputation of the sector;
  • To adapt to the changing world in which we live; and
  • To demonstrate by continually improving that the sector is committed to continuing to provide value for money.

The reputation of the sector and higher education  institutions is critical –ensuring the long term sustainability – yet higher education has had a challenging time in the media over the last few years over a range of issues from Vice-Chancellor pay top grade inflation and questions around freedom of speech on campus. Although it may be the case that this criticism is unjustified and unfair, nevertheless the criticism remains, and we must do what we can to challenge the negative narrative. A Code that draws on best practice from other sectors is one small contribution that we can make; yet since it is not enough to have good governance, we must demonstrate that we have good governance. So, for example this Code emphasises

Governing bodies should ensure the institution is accessible and relevant to its local communities, and should be open to, and engage with, their local communities in identifying their role in delivering public/community benefit and economic, civic duties, cultural and social growth.

It also for the first time suggests a set of core values which higher education governance should be founded on:

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The higher education sector has changed significantly since the publication of the Code in 2014: England has a new regulatory framework, there has been governance legislation in Scotland and a new governance Charter in Wales. New providers have entered the scene – and Covid has demonstrated the need for institutions to adapt and change processes and systems in weeks rather than years. In that context, the new Code is designed to be more flexible and more widely applicable, since much of the process advice has been taken out and there is a much stronger emphasis on principles which can be applied in every institution. Yet we still value and respect the need for institutional autonomy, so the Code remains an ‘Apply or Explain’ Code. This means institutions can consider the different elements and apply what they think is useful for them and explain why other elements may not be appropriate.

Continuous improvement is always desirable and, even though the great majority of UK institutions are well governed, over the last few years there have been some failures of governance. The specifics vary from case to case, yet one of the common threads running throughout these failures (and failures in other sectors) is the criticality of organisational and Board culture and behaviour. Create a culture based on mutual respect, constructive challenge and informed and transparent debate and the institution will thrive; one based on domineering personalities, a discouragement of questioning and secretive decision making, and the governance will ultimately fail. That is why this Code lays a much stronger emphasis on the need for all members of the Board to:

question intelligently, debate constructively, challenge rigorously, decide dispassionately and be sensitive to the views of others both inside and outside governing body meetings.

It also builds on the previous Code in respect of diversity, encouraging institutions to recognise that diversity in this context does not just mean protected characteristics – it includes a diversity of voice, attitude and experience. It is a means of ensuring that under-representation and differences in outcomes are challenged and, where practicable, followed by a course of corrective action that ensures fair outcomes for all.

This is not just a Committee of University Chairs Code – we have drawn on a range of resources including emerging practice in other sectors, reviewed a wide range of literature, including HEPI’s previous work on governance  and consulted widely. I am grateful to all those that have contributed. I hope the sector will find the new Code useful, but I know that the world will not stand still and in four years we will have to revisit this all over again.

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